Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Best Location in the Nation

Guest Blogger Lisa Black

Cleveland, Ohio (pop. approximately 500,000) is a Great Lakes Port city on the southern short of Lake Erie. Among many other commerce and cultural kudos, Cleveland was the home of Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, who created the comic book character Superman in 1932.

I lived in Cleveland, Ohio, for the first 36 years of my life. I swam in Lake Erie, felt the crunch of newly fallen leaves under my feet as I walked to school, spent summer nights in the Flats with teeming masses of the young and wild, music pounding out of the bars until everyone had to shout to be heard.

It was there I entered the world of forensics, spending the most interesting five years of my life at the coroner’s office. I didn’t mind the smell of decay, leached into the tile walls after decades of dead bodies. I learned to love the stuffy towering floors of the justice center where I waited to testify in trials, and the rattling of the rapid transit as it would cross the Cuyahoga River, steel valley cloaked in purple hues under the early morning mist. I loved my job for the stories it told.

One of these involved a missing escort, never seen again after a date with a new client. We could not prove the client did it, just as we never found her body. That was twelve years ago. But in Evidence of Murder I could write my own solution to the case of the missing escort. To do that, I needed to learn more about the history of Cleveland and a particular suburb, Lakewood.

America, as we are all taught, was founded on the idea of freedom. Europeans came here to be able to worship as they pleased, come and go as they pleased, break out of the strict social castes of the Old Country. At least that’s what we prefer to dwell on, because the reasons behind the founding of most major American cities are not quite so picturesque.

To sum: many American cities were founded to make money. The Dutch settled New York because it had a port and therefore a handy place to set up a trading colony, a franchise of the Dutch West Indies Company. Chicago came about when a Haitian man and his Indian wife set up a trading post at, again, a handy port. Los Angeles became organized when a Spanish bureaucrat convinced the king that the area could be a cash cow, since there were plenty of resources for the farmers to produce supplies to support the military forts, and both would usher in more trading with Asia. No lofty ideals involved; but then, Americans are nothing if not practical. 

And so it was in Cleveland, when the Connecticut Land Company sent Moses Cleaveland to set up a commercial port where the Cuyahoga River could take boats from the Great Lakes to within 4 miles of the Ohio river (and therefore the Mississippi, reaching the rest of the country down to New Orleans). Not even the disease-ridden mosquitoes could discourage them, not when there was money to be made.

That’s why people came to America, then and now—because they couldn’t make a living in a tiny town in Germany, as my mother’s grandparents found, or because a small place in Bohemia could only use so many cabinet makers, as my father’s. Around 1900, Cleveland had the second largest Czech population in the country and the fourth in the world. Many of them settled in a section of Lakewood, called Birdtown since the streets were named for birds—Robin, Lark, Quail.

This photo is from a school project to document the history of Birdtown. Click here to learn more and see more photos.

From their homes they could walk to work at one of the local factories, particularly the Cleveland Carbon Company, a collection of red-brick buildings next to what would later be the Red Line Rapid Transit tracks. Riding home from work at the Coroner’s Office, the impressive buildings where they once manufactured carbon brushes and other carbon items meant I had four stops left. Perhaps I was drawn to Lakewood because my sister worked in the hospital there for ten years. Perhaps I was drawn to the old manufacturing plant, similar to a woodworking factory my mother’s ancestor founded to help his fellow countrymen find jobs. In any case, I knew that Lakewood's Birdtown would be the perfect opening for my second Theresa MacLean mystery, Evidence of Murder.

I love setting my books in Cleveland. As I research the city's history, I run into my own.
For more information about my latest book, other books, or Cleveland, I’d love for you to visit my web site.


Julia Buckley said...

Great post, Lisa! You write about Cleveland with such love--it makes me want to visit there. The book sounds terrific, as well.

Morgan Mandel said...

I don't think I could handle that kind of job, but I can see how someone with an inquisitive and dedicated outlook can overlook such things as smell and decay. The atmosphere would really get me down.

Morgan Mandel

caryn said...

Nice post Lisa.
I went to your website too to read more about your I have a question that is probably obvious to everyone else but me...are you also Elizabeth Becka? Or do you both promote each other's books?

Lisa Black said...

Yes, my first two books were written under Elizabeth Becka (my maiden name). I changed to Lisa Black when I changed publishers.

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